As a matter of speaking

by Martin Williams

Two top Hong Kong speakers had their audience hanging on to every word when they provided them with tips for delivering effective presentations at a recent Career Times seminar on persuasive communication

Eric Sampson
executive consultant
Connect Communication Limited
Photos: Wallace Chan

Some people may get nervous when they have to speak in public, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Executive consultants from communication skills consultancy Connect Communication, Eric Sampson and Tony Ngo, explained that there were several ways to keep focused and keep an audience engaged.

Pointing out that even great communicators such as US President-elect Barack Obama get nervous before they take the stage, Mr Sampson said that a certain level of anxiety can help with communication by providing energy to keep a speaker on track.

He pointed out that there were three main aspects to any presentation, whether telephonically, via video conference or face-to-face.

The first two aspects were knowledge and preparation, but Mr Sampson concentrated particularly on the third key factor, delivery.

He stressed that every presentation has two aims: getting a message across and reflecting personality. The latter was more powerful than the former, since all speakers wanted their audience to find them credible.

"The emotional factor is more important," he added, noting that a speaker's pace of speaking was critical to getting the message across. "When we're excited about something, we usually speak fast. So, one of the easiest ways to show enthusiasm is to speak quickly."

Pause for thought

Pace also involves the rate of putting ideas across. "A simple way to do this is to pause and allow people to reflect on the things you have said," Mr Sampson noted. "A pause means looking across the room in silence. It's almost impossible to think and listen properly at the same time, since these two functions are ruled by different parts of the brain, so pausing is incredibly important."

Speakers may pause either before or after speaking. Pausing before speaking helps to create anticipation. The speaker should then speak quickly and passionately about the subject before pausing again. This gives the audience time to think about what has been said, while giving the speaker the chance to think about what to say next.

It is important for a speaker to make eye contact with the audience, whether it consists only of a family member or of a group of business colleagues or strangers. This helps to build trust, particularly after saying something particularly important. This also allows the speaker to assess the audience's understanding of certain messages.

"Be natural and be yourself," Mr Sampson advised. While most people did not even think about their body language when they interacted with friends or family, it did become an issue when they were on stage. "My suggestion is to let your hands sit by your side. They'll feel really heavy, but in a few minutes they'll start working with you. Body language is natural."

Structural importance

Tony Ngo, executive consultant, Connect Communication
The second speaker, Mr Ngo, discussed the structure and content of presentations, as well as visual aids. He noted that people usually spend days on preparing presentations.

He explained how they could speed things up by using an efficient template based on the Minto Pyramid Principle, originally drawn up by McKinsey & Company consultant Barbara Minto.

"Start with the main point. Then give three key points and expand on them," he advised. "Finally, summarise the content, repeat your conclusion and call for action." Some people believe that using the template could cut presentation preparation time by 70 per cent, he added.

Research has shown that the optimum duration for a presentation is 15 to 16 minutes, but the template is useful even when a speaker only has time for a very short address. It has been called "the elevator pitch" for its ability to help someone make an important pitch in the time that it takes to ride a lift from one floor to another.

Considering that only about 15 per cent of people read the content of newspaper articles, a good title is paramount, Mr Ngo stressed. Structuring the address according to the SCQA model (situation, complication, question, and answer) could also add interest, while a hook at the beginning could encourage the audience to pay attention.

"I advise staying away from humour," Mr Ngo said, adding that it was acceptable to refer to relevant real-life situations or to use quotations.

Finally, he described visual aids as "anything that would make people think" and concluded with two video clips to demonstrate this in a straightforward manner.

Persuading the audience

  • Show enthusiasm by speaking quickly
  • Pause to allow people to reflect
  • Be natural and be yourself
  • Pyramid template can substantially cut preparation time

Taken from Career Times 28 November 2008, p. A16
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